Tuesday, October 23, 2007

American Beauty, Reconsidered

I run the "Philosophy Film Series" (and the corresponding "Pub Talks") at my college, a task I enjoy so much that it doesn't even seem like work. I'm always pleasantly surprised to find that our students are very sophisticated film viewers, and my job as the facilitator of our discussions is often impeded by my desire to just let them talk and talk and talk.

Our last film was Sam Mendes' 1999 masterpiece American Beauty. I remember being moved to tears the first time I saw that film-- and completely unable to account for my visceral, mostly unreflective, and exceedingly vulnerable reaction. I also remember at some point having an elaborate argument about how American Beauty and Fight Club (which was released the same year) were essentially the same film with different ethical payouts, but unfortunately I can't remember how that argument went. I've got to start writing these things down...

Anyway, on this viewing, I found myself just as moved by the fragile, weary, neurotic and human-all-too-human characters. Mendes managed to strike just the right chord in this film, a delicate balance of suburban arrogance and suburban angst. But this time, unlike any time before, I was terribly disappointed with the ending. [**SPOILER ALERT** Stop reading now if you haven't seen the film!] Of course, I'm not talking about the fact that Lester, the main character played by Kevin Spacey, is murdered in the end. I was disappointed in the film's "epilogue"-- where Lester, in his voiceover narration from beyond the grave, assures us that if we have yet to see the "beauty" in this life, we shouldn't worry, because "someday [we] will."

This is what I don't like about that: the entire film seems to suggest that developing a capacity to see what is beautiful in our otherwise mundane, often very ugly, existence is a remarkable achievement. It's as close to a "virtue" that one can find in Mendes' spiritually-empty American suburbia. So, when the tragic (anti-)hero curtails the miracle of that achievement by assuring it to everyone from the point-of-view of some happy afterlife, the whole tragic beauty of the film seems cheapened.

But, then again, maybe that's what makes it an "American" beauty.


Chet said...

i too thought the "american" qualifier was tongue in cheek, look at these caricatures of human beings and the supposed dramas that they suffer. i guess it's manifest that i did not really care for this film. spacey is way too overrated. i like wes bentley, but in "the claim," not in this film. Bening? i dunno. "the grifters" was good, and she was in it ...

but yes, I would call the ending one of the film's faults. first off, voiceover is generally treacherous area. and then there's teh content ...

thumbs down, really.

Chet said...

more though. it's not just that everything is about "finding beauty," which really means infatuation with the image, nothing more. i mean, i like to think the film is a tawdry, silly faux-tragedy because then i would appreciate the film more. but there is no metanarrative that disrupts the imbuing of images with something resembling meaning. therefore, i am hardpressed to show how the film creates this sense.

a good american tragedy: "in the bedroom" or "sometimes a great notion" or ... if you're up for canadian allegory/tragedy, the best is easily "the sweet hereafter."

Doctor J said...


I guess we'll just have to agree to disagree on American Beauty. I thought Spacey was great (though, remember, this is before his whole sardonic thing got tired out and predictable). I though Benning was FANTASTIC. (And an unscientific survey of opinions would show, I think, that a lot of women connected to the vulnerability of Benning's character in that film.) Except for the ending, I thought the voiceoveer worked, though I agree with you in principle that it's a pretty dogdy device most of the time.

I've mentioned already that I wasn't a big fan of "The Sweet Hereafter"... but I did think that "In The Bedroom" was a great American tragedy. I like the question: what is a great American (film) tragedy. I'll have to think more on that one.